I am usually a happy and hopeful person. I tried to demonstrate enthusiasm and a hopeful spirit during my life and leadership. When I retired from policing, I sincerely thought my generation had left behind a system of policing that would continuously improve and sustain itself over the years – that excellence was in our cross-hairs!
I was wrong.
When I witnessed the lack of enthusiasm among my older colleagues following the release of President Johnson’s Task Force on Police in 1967, and the Kerner Commission’s stinging analysis of crime and violence in America a year later, I thought the negativity of those with whom I worked could be overcome and we, new to policing — a New Breed — would overcome the old and tired organizational thinking that enveloped us. We believed we could move the practice of policing forward with our education and enthusiasm.
In my early days (just like today), relations with people of color were at best poor, even in the northern cities where many of us worked. While we didn’t know what to do about public protest, we knew that what we were doing was not working. When we became leaders, we thought we could do better. But we knew that in order to do this we had to work very closely with the community — everyone in the community. While we were solidly white and male we were determined to change this untenable situation and the driving force behind this “radical” thinking was the reports of those two national commissions in the late 1960s.
My generation’s attempt to solve these problems put us on the improvement track: we became better able to handle crowds and protest, brought women into the ranks, pursued community-oriented policing, and were committed to fielding a police organization that was better educated, highly trained, diverse, and able to continually improve.
And yet some things still are not working.
Where I hope to find progress, continuous improvement, respect for the dignity and worth of all people, restraint in using force, collaboration with citizens in solving problems, and mature police leaders, I find many departments and police leaders still not on board — some police and union leaders even resist these improvements.
I fear it is a dangerous laissez-faire attitude in many police agencies that has been sustained by isolation, secrecy, and a history of avoiding accountability. It is an attitude of maintaining, at all costs, the status quo – “if it was good enough yesterday, it’s good enough for today.” For all the acts of which heroic self-sacrifice police are capable, their fear of change and the future freezes mediocrity in place.
What can we learn from the past? The latter 1960s was a time of President Johnson’s vison of a Great Society; a society in which America’s treasured civil rights would be enjoyed by those who have been historically excluded — African-Americans.
At the same time there was this matter of an unpopular war in Vietnam fed by a military draft. We were told we could we have both “guns and butter;” fight a war and expand civil rights. The war and the struggle for civil rights at home pitted ill-prepared police against often violent protesters. Yet many of us new to police leadership saw this as a challenge – an opportunity to be better and do better.
When age caught up with us, when we “ended our watch,” the torch we hoped to pass was not well-received. Other matters became more important – that fateful day in September, 2001 and a decade-long war.
Life in policing became too simple, new police technologies, armament and firepower made it look even easier. The community, frightened by the prospect of another terrorist attack, was not asking for police transparency or accountability.
It now was an age of high tech policing — personal radios, high-capacity firearms, electronic control devices, body armor, enhanced communications, and few, if any, challenges to the direction police were headed.
Up until the event at Ferguson, police had a lot of trust-currency in their bank account. Life was good for police. Crime was down. Police use of deadly force was always justified by local prosecutors working with investigators from the officer’s agency.
During this period, a slow, but dramatic shift occurred in the attitude of our police. Some have called it a shift from being guardians to that of being military-like warriors. How that happened can be debatable — that it occurred, the militarization of our nation’s police, cannot.
So police began to strengthen and demonstrate their warrior image – military dress and armament. Shouldn’t a warring nation, beset by the threat of terrorists, have a warrior police? Then came anti-terrorism training, increased armament, armored personnel carriers, more use of SWAT in daily police operations, and a focus on resolving all threatening acts with firearms, and putting de-escalation and conflict management training on the back shelf.
Within a decade, American police moved from being like Sheriff Andy of Mayberry to Robocop. That is, until the summer of 2014 in a suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson.
That week, a nation woke up and queried on the internet and national news sources, “What happened to our police?”
This question was loudly answered by a flood (tsunami may be a better word) of cellphone videos posted on the internet. To most observers, they were shocking. To those among us who were of color, it was terrifying. Did Jim Crow rise from the dead?
There was the deaths of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald by police. To many viewers, they were crimes. Although the nation did not see the actual death of Michael Brown, the after-event images of him lying in the street, blood ebbing into pavement and the response of the St. Louis County SWAT team became a part of our history.
And it picked away at our racial past. “Don’t the lives of black people matter?
When the Ferguson story began to unwind, there were a few police-involved shooting videos on YouTube. Two years later, there were thousands with many of them viewed over a million times!
The impact of this created a new public image of police in America — that police were racist, overly militarized, disrespectful, quick to use force, and lied in their reports – in short, police were beginning to be seen as violent, unpredictable and untrustworthy! Too many police dash and body cameras along with citizen videos of these uncomfortable events cemented this image image in the minds of many in America.
All of a sudden, the public started asking questions about the number of deaths caused by police. They found there was no such national collection or repository. A nation that daily tracks the performance of its economy was not able to track citizen deaths at the hands of their police. Then citizen groups independently started counting these deaths and they far-exceeded what police were reporting which added more fuel to a growing fire.
Today, there are still no mandatory reporting requirements for police homicides. We have no national baseline, specific accounts, or information as to who is being shot and killed, when, and under what circumstances. How can we ever know if we are improving if we never know where the starting line is?
Our nation attempted to respond to this crisis as we have done in the past; that is, the President calls for an inquiry to investigate and make recommendations. President Obama did just that. He called together a task force of police and community experts and asked them to investigate and report. Within a year, a report was published. Soon after, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group of educated police chiefs from our nation’s larger cities, addressed a very specific problem in their guidelines on the use of police deadly force.
Now a year has passed, the task force, under the auspices of the federal COPS program in the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a report on the progress that occurred the initial recommendations were made.
Reading this report left me nearly depressed. Remember, I am basically a happy and hopeful person, because it appeared to me that so little that has been accomplished. I had expected much more.
If the recommendations of the task force, and those recommended by PERF, are not fully and actively implemented on a national basis in the very near future, I fear policing will remain in its state of mediocrity with occasional sluggish, begrudged, and unsustained improvements.
I write this from a long perspective; a perspective of five decades of either leading police or discerning and commenting on them. There are only a few of us from my generation still engaged in actively seeking the improvement of policing in America.
So let me say this to young, aspiring police leaders: I ask you to lead with your values and do the right things for the right reasons. People matter and what you do is essential to a free society. Godspeed.